CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Thousands of Venezuelans dressed in white marched in the capital Saturday to pay homage to the at least 20 people killed in anti-government unrest in recent weeks.
Protests have been roiling Venezuela on an almost daily basis since the pro-government Supreme Court stripped congress of its last powers three weeks ago, a decision later reversed amid a storm of international rebuke.
But for the first since the protests began, demonstrators managed to cross from the wealthier eastern side of Caracas to the traditionally pro-government west without encountering resistance from state security.
Opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara, relishing the feat, likened the protesters' arrival in the city's more humble neighborhoods as "crossing the Berlin wall."
Once assembled outside the headquarters of the Roman Catholic bishops' confederation, religious leaders led the crowd in a moment of silence and asked God for strength. Then a string of political leaders passed around a megaphone and from the back of a pick-up truck repeated their demand of recent days for immediate elections and freedom for dozens of jailed government opponents they consider political prisoners.
"Let it be heard: The dictatorship is in its final days," said Maria Corina Machado, who was stripped of her seat in congress in 2014. The crowd responded with shouts of "Freedom! Freedom!"
Many Venezuelans blame the socialist policies of President Nicolas Maduro's administration for triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages of food and medical supplies.
Among the demonstrators gathered in Caracas was Andres Ramirez, a 34-year-old agricultural engineer who marched with a giant cross draped in the Venezuelan flag.
"I am here carrying this cross for the peace of all Venezuelans," he said beneath a punishing sun. "We ask God to protect us in these moments of crisis and suffering."
Elsewhere in the city, smaller pockets of violent protesters, some of them with their faces covered and throwing rocks, clashed with riot police, who responded with tear gas.
The opposition contends rogue armed pro-government groups have been fomenting the violence that has swirled around protests. Government leaders claim the violence is generated by right-wing opposition forces working with criminal gangs in an attempt to remove them from power.
"These are terrorist groups on a mission to sow hate and death," Diosdado Cabello, leader of the ruling socialist party, told supporters this week.